‘How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage’ by Myra Scott

Scott_how_australia_led

2018 reprint (original 2003 Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women), 120 p.

This book was originally launched in December 2003 at a ceremony in Parliament House Canberra where two crucial documents of Australia’s democracy were put on public display. The first was the Australian Constitution and the second was the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which gave the vote at Federal elections and the right to stand for Parliament to white Australian women on the same terms as men. Placed adjacent was the “Trust the Women” banner, made by Dora Meeson Coates in 1911 (which can be seen here) which, 77 years after its creation, was purchased from the Fawcett Library, London by the National Women’s Consultative Council as a Bicentennial Gift to the Women of Australia in 1988. In 2002 it was donated to the Parliament House Gift Collection for permanent display (although it sometimes travels to other museums).

This small book tells the story of the banner, its creator Dora Meeson Coates, and the context in which the banner was produced. Its author, art historian Myra Scott, had already written a thesis in 1992 on George James Coates and his wife Dora Meeson Coates where she described their role in founding a group of expatriate Australian artists in London, which became the base for successive generations of Australian artists seeking to establish themselves internationally. She was well placed, then, to write on Dora Meeson’s activities amongst the suffragists and suffragettes in England, where parliamentary approval for women’s suffrage lagged behind New Zealand and Australia’s pioneering legislation. The book has the British political system as its setting and focus and describes how, after the success of the Australian suffrage campaigns (even in laggardly Victoria) Australians travelled to ‘the mother country’ to encourage the British Parliament to pass similar legislation.

The creator of the banner, Dora Meeson was born in Melbourne in 1869. Her father, the founder and headmaster of the now defunct Hawthorn Grammar School, returned to London when Dora was ten years old in order to study law. The family then migrated to New Zealand, and in 1895 moved to Melbourne where Dora studied art at the National Gallery School. There she met fellow artist George Coates, and when he won a scholarship to study art in Paris, Meeson and her family also travelled to Paris. George and Dora married in 1903 and, leaving behind the comfortable economic milieu of her parents, they struggled to become part of the art world in London. After the death of her parents, she became increasing involved in the suffrage movement, most particularly through the Women’s Freedom League where she was founder-member.

Legislation for female suffrage had been presented to the British Parliament several times, but each time was blocked after the second reading. After one of these failures in 1908, they were advised by Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone that the success of the other Reform Bills in 1832, 1867 and 1884 had only occurred after large rallies forced the government’s hand.  It was here that Dora Meeson stepped up.  She was highly active in the Artisans Suffrage League, producing banners, postcards, booklets for womens suffrage – including her “Trust the Women” banner, which featured in the 1911 Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.

What surprised me in this book that it was not just Australian suffragists who lent their support to their British sisters, but (male) Australian politicians also very publicly supported the campaign as well. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher spoke in support at the International Women’s Franchise Club and at an all-male Labour banquet.   The Australian Senate sent a ‘resolution’ praising the influence of women’s suffrage to the British Parliament in 1910, but it was promptly buried by the British Prime Minister who did not want to publicize it. The proponents of suffrage reform could point to evidence from the Australian experience: women had not been turned into harridans; instead they had influenced important social legislation to benefit women and children. And even though the British Parliament might sniff at the presumption of the colonies to comment on the composition and suffrage of the House of Commons, the colonies and dominions had skin in the game. The proposed Naturalization Bill, whereby a woman’s nationality on marriage would change to match that of her husband’s (even if they were divorced or if the husband had died) was originally planned to extend across the empire, affecting Australia as well. (In the end, the dominions were allowed to grant local nationality under their own terms of qualification.)

The Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession of 1911 was held to coincide with the Coronation of King George V. At the same time the Imperial Conference was held,  bringing politicians from across the empire to London. Margaret Fisher, the Prime Minister’s wife and Emily McGowen, the wife of the New South Wales Premier attended the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession, which took three hours to pass by, with 40,000 women marching five abreast, representing 28 women’s organizations. It was a highly visible march with music, floats and banners. Differences between the varied women’s groups, some of which focussed on parliamentary lobbying while others turned to direct action, were put aside for the march.

Dora Meeson’s banner representing Australia was big, requiring four people to carry it. Unlike other embroidered banners, this one was painted on an olive green background. The image, Scott suggests, references one of the paintings on the walls of the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, created for the Federation ceremony conducted there ten years earlier, which depicted Britannia as Minerva. In what could be- and was- interpreted as ‘colonial upstartness’, the banner depicted a younger woman beseeching a highly unamused Mother England to ‘Trust the Women’ who had received the suffrage in Australia. Far from the ‘aggressive rabble’ as suffragists/suffragettes were often depicted, these are ‘womanly women’, and the image appealed to statesmanship at the highest level.

But none of this agitation, or the urgings of Australian and New Zealand personalities and politicians, swayed the British Government. When war broke out, the campaign for suffrage was suspended and Dora Meeson joined Nina Boyle of the Women’s Freedom League in forming the Women’s Police Force to fill the positions of men who were at the front.  She continued to be a member of the Australian and New Zealand Women’s Voters Association, whose members promoted themselves as the only enfranchised women in Britain. After the provision of  partial suffrage in 1918, it was not until 1928 that Britain finally granted the full suffrage to women.

This book was re-released in 2018. During 2018 another book about the influence of Australian suffragists on the British campaign was also released – that of You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright. From my brief perusal of Wright’s book (which I have not yet read), they are two very different propositions. Wright’s book is large, at over 500 pages and weaves a tapestry of many women, told in a warm and colloquial tone. Scott’s book is much smaller, with an emphasis on the banner and its creator, in a more restrained narrative tone.

The story of Australia’s early 20th century progressivism is a good one, and it bears retelling many times, especially in today’s context of increasing conservatism. The actions of Australian women on the international stage, and the willingness of Australian male politicians to champion female suffrage once they found that there was nothing to fear, show Australia as a new nation, bristling with confidence and action.  There’s room enough for many stories celebrating this.

Sourced from: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

AWW2019 I have added this book to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

3 responses to “‘How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage’ by Myra Scott

  1. Thank you for a great review and a timely and incredibly relevant reminder of the hard won gains for women in the early 20th century and what we are in grave danger of losing a hundred years later.

  2. I agree, it’s an important story and one that certainly does bear retelling, thanks for sharing this one:)

  3. I’m sure you’ve worked out I’m a Miles Franklin nut. MF visited London, from Chicago, in 1911. Roe writes MF met the ‘redoubtable’ Charlotte Despard, leader of the WFL and that the ‘radical, reputable, progressivist’ and ‘middle class WFL’ was a natural fit for her. MF gave an interview to the WFL journal The Vote, and as I wrote another time, when she returned to London in 1915 she worked in the WFL vegetarian cafe, Minerva.
    Vida Goldstein was also in London in 1911 – where she was just
    ‘It’ MF wrote – but I can’t tell if she was also a WFL member.

Leave a Reply to April Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s